Email detailed plans to obscure Scientologists’ role in Clearwater project

It proposed that an Arizona developer serve as the public face of the $350 million redevelopment to make it “legit.” He denies receiving the email.

Tampa Bay Times/April 2, 2023

By Tracey McManus

When Arizona real estate developer Rodney Riley arrived in Clearwater last year, he unveiled a $350 million plan to revive prime waterfront property near downtown.

He said he intended to buy 55 empty and neglected parcels in the North Marina Area and transform them into luxury condos, offices, a hotel and multifamily housing, generating millions of dollars of tax revenue. The 13-block district, with historic bungalows and streets that end at Clearwater Harbor, is anchored by the city’s popular Seminole Boat Ramp.

The announcement signaled a promising turn of events. The current landowners — limited liability companies tied to Church of Scientology members — had kept the lots largely untouched since buying there in 2019.

Riley is not a member of Scientology, and he has gone out of his way to share that fact in early meetings with city officials.

“He was talking about being an outsider coming in,” Clearwater Economic Development and Housing director Denise Sanderson said. “He’s done work in Utah with Mormons, and he felt it was a similar situation here having to overcome issues of perception.”

As Riley seeks the required approvals from the city, he has described the project to Clearwater officials as one with no involvement from Scientology beyond the parishioner-related entities selling him the land.

But an email obtained by the Tampa Bay Times lays out in detail that wealthy Scientologists recruited Riley to be the public face of the project instead of the church members.

The January 2022 email, titled “Structure (email to Rod),” names the author as Stephen Epstein, a Scientology parishioner and member of the board of advisers for CA South, a Nashville, Tennessee-based real estate firm. It presents, in draft form, a plan allowing Riley to look “like a white knight” who would not face religious discrimination.

It proposes profit splits between the parties and suggests what Riley should say “if anyone asks who is ‘behind’ or ‘involved’ in what we’re doing.” It also explains that Riley was needed to make the project “legit” and avoid questions about the parishioners’ motives.

Riley adamantly rejected these portrayals, both in direct responses to the Times’ questions and through letters from his lawyers. He said he did not receive the email and never agreed to the terms it describes.

The email names the recipient as Edward Tinsley, a former employee of CA South. When reached for comment, Tinsley declined to answer questions from the Times.

“Could individuals or entities that include Scientologists end up being property users or development clients of (my company) in the district? Yes, that is possible, since I will not discriminate against anyone as I make decisions related to the properties,” Riley said. “But the implication that I am doing the Church of Scientology’s bidding on this project or that I am a front man for the Church of Scientology is not accurate and is not based on fact.”

Riley’s lawyer, Shane B. Vogt of Tampa, said in an email to Times attorneys that it is “categorically false” to portray his client as a front for the church or its members.

In response to a list of questions, Epstein told the Times “the email you sent me is both inaccurate and untrue.” He declined to comment further.

The email includes language indicating Epstein and Riley were having ongoing discussions: “Your role in the partnership is to ‘make it all happen,’ just like you mentioned yesterday,” Epstein stated, according to the email.

It also states that Epstein would arrange meetings between Riley and Ben Shaw, a spokesperson for Scientology leader David Miscavige, to discuss acquiring more land and to strategize development plans.

Such an arrangement would run counter to the church’s long-standing claim that it has nothing to do with the many downtown area land purchases tied to its members since 2017.

Over the past six years, limited liability companies tied to Scientology parishioners have gradually bought at least 175 parcels with $125 million in cash in the downtown core and North Marina but have kept most of those buildings empty and lots undeveloped while city officials attempt to revive the struggling downtown.

“Nobody’s business”

The vast property holdings now serve as leverage for Scientology as it seeks a land swap with Clearwater. For years, the church has sought a small city-owned lot on the downtown waterfront adjacent to its 13-story religious retreat, while city officials have seen the swap as a way to acquire land for downtown revitalization.

But negotiations have stalled amid leadership turnover at City Hall. Before the City Council fired him in January, former City Manager Jon Jennings held multiple discussions with Miscavige about the city and church exchanging parcels. Despite talks spanning a year, they were unable to finalize a deal.

In 2019, the limited liability companies began accelerating their purchases in North Marina, a district a half-mile from downtown’s Coachman Park. It is frequented by drivers hauling boats to the Seminole Boat Ramp.

The proposed redevelopment of the North Marina properties is described in the email as a joint venture between Riley, Epstein and an entity run by Osman Ozsan, a parishioner and money manager for prominent Scientologist Trish Duggan. With her ex-husband, Duggan has donated more than $360 million to the church, making her one of the top contributors to Scientology worldwide.

In a phone interview last year, Riley confirmed he had the 55 parcels under option through Ozsan, who was representing the various limited liability company sellers.

The email provides a talking point regarding Riley: “If anyone asks who is ‘behind’ or ‘involved’ in what we’re doing, the answer is … ‘It’s nobody’s business who Rod’s investors are (past, present or future).’”

It goes on to say: “The background/context given to the city, prior to them even asking, should be that (the joint venture) is getting a large amount of land under option” from the parishioner-controlled companies that own the land.

The email states that this portrayal “is actually 100% true” since the group planned to transfer the land into a new partnership that they control to secure outside, unaffiliated funding for the developments. But it makes clear that Riley, as a non-Scientologist, was needed as the face of the project.

Riley would “get to tell the truth while looking like a white knight coming from an outside market without any discrimination or preconceived ideas about your agenda because of your religion, race, etc.,” Epstein states, according to the email.

It says it would be problematic if he, Ozsan or Duggan were seen as being involved “at this early stage before we’re fully established and real.”

And it adds: “Having actually executed the plan that we are putting forward here will make us ‘legit’ and not allow our motives to be questioned. So it’s better for the company to not have any unnecessary baggage at this stage.”

In his statement to the Times, Riley said he has his own investors, whom he did not name, and that he is making his own decisions related to the project. He stated he has corresponded with Epstein and Duggan “as part of conversations related to the project,” but he did not specify the nature of those discussions.

Neither Duggan nor Ozsan responded to requests for comment.

The email also proposes a structure for profit distribution of the joint venture. It says Ozsan’s entity would contribute seed money and receive 50% of the developer’s profits on each project. Riley would receive 20% of the profits plus a $250,000 annual base salary. Epstein would receive 20% of the profits, and the remaining 10% would go to board members or be split among them.

Riley’s responsibilities, according to the email, would be to handle day-to-day development work, strategic planning, lobbying and interactions with officials and the public.

It states Epstein’s role would be to prepare legal documents for the venture, set up bank accounts and arrange meetings between the group and Shaw, the church spokesperson, who is a member of Scientology’s full-time workforce in Clearwater called the Sea Org.

It says Epstein would “facilitate meetings” between himself, Riley “and Ben Shaw, with the Church, for the purpose of hopefully acquiring as much property as possible and figuring out where to place museum, etc.”

In his statement to the Times, Riley said he has never met with Shaw.

“The Church of Scientology is not an investor, tenant or end buyer of any project I’m developing in the North Marina area,” Riley stated. “Just because I’m buying land from Scientologists or would welcome investors of all religions does not mean I’m doing projects for the Church of Scientology.”

Amassing land

Scientology’s record of obscuring its role in downtown land purchases began in late 1975 when it entered the city under a fake name and bought the Fort Harrison Hotel and Clearwater Bank building. Confusion spread as the newcomers posted guards with billy clubs and Mace. The group soon acknowledged it was actually Scientology, then a relatively new religious organization whose founder, L. Ron Hubbard, wrote about replacing governments with a Scientology-run society.

But its strategy of using intermediaries to acquire land for its international spiritual headquarters continued through the decades.

In the 1990s, the church used third parties to acquire three motels on North Fort Harrison Avenue. Afterward, the properties were deeded to the Church of Scientology and used for out-of-town religious workers who come to Clearwater for training. Church officials at the time explained they needed to take this approach out of concern that sellers might raise asking prices if they knew Scientology was buying.

But in 2017, the pattern changed. Limited liability companies controlled by parishioners began buying commercial properties and keeping them vacant without transferring the land to the Scientology institution.

More than two-thirds of the 60 properties owned by Scientology in Pinellas County are tax-exempt for religious uses. That’s not the case for the roughly 175 properties amassed by limited liability companies in the downtown core and North Marina Area since 2017. The land remains on the tax rolls.

The arrangement has created a degree of separation between the downtown purchases and the Scientology institution, something Miscavige has repeatedly used to deny involvement.

In Florida, limited liability companies that buy property are required to disclose administrative operators but not their owners. It’s standard in real estate, but it blurs the identity of who is behind the deal.

“No, the church is not ‘orchestrating,’ ‘influencing’ or in any way involved with the properties you reference,” Shaw wrote in a September 2021 letter responding to questions from the Times about limited liability companies buying land in North Marina.

In response to a series of questions for this story, Shaw said no church representative has ever met or spoken to Riley and that Scientology is in no way involved in his project. He reiterated that Scientology is not behind the North Marina purchases and did not bring in Riley to obscure the church’s role.

“We have absolutely nothing to do with this matter,” he wrote.

When the companies tied to parishioners began acquiring real estate in the downtown core in early 2017, they bought properties that weren’t on the market and paid in cash many times over appraised value.

Years later, most of those properties sit untouched. Storefronts along the main Cleveland Street drag remain empty. Buildings are vacant in the streets surrounding Coachman Park and the waterfront, where the city has invested $84 million to build a green space and music venue set to open in June.

Since the purchases took off in 2019 in North Marina, companies tied to Scientology parishioners bought 66 parcels with $22 million in cash, the lion’s share of land in the 13 blocks around the boat ramp.

A company controlled by Brian Andrus, a developer and Scientology parishioner, built Marina Bay 880 on Osceola Avenue. The development features two towers that hug a private marina, with 87 luxury condos and amenities like an Olympic-sized pool and sauna.

In November 2020, a company controlled by CA South, where Epstein is on the board of advisers, purchased six lots nearby. Epstein had discussions that year with Clearwater staff about a commercial and multifamily project for the site but said he dropped it when the city declined to relax parking restrictions.

Epstein responded to questions from the Times in 2021 with an affidavit declaring his client was not the Church of Scientology. It said his company has never had a religious entity as a client, investor, real estate buyer or seller.

Making connections

Before coming to Clearwater, Riley spent about 30 years in real estate development in Florida, Arizona and Utah. Early in his career, he said he worked in leasing and sales for commercial developments and master planned communities in Florida, which led to him handling acquisitions for a German firm investing in the U.S.

He spent 2016 to 2018 as southwest regional sales director for the real estate company CBRE. More recently, he managed the purchase and redevelopment of buildings in Mesa, Arizona, for Caliber, an asset management firm that is working to revitalize the downtown. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, widely known as the Mormon church, has a large presence in the area.

In a phone interview last year, Riley cited this record as why he is best suited to ”work across the pew” in Clearwater, where Scientology has its spiritual headquarters. Riley said he learned about the opportunity in North Marina because Epstein had been searching for a developer to take over the properties, and a mutual friend introduced the two men due to Riley’s resume.

He said he moved to Clearwater from Arizona to begin work on the project in January 2022, which is also the month the email is dated.

Riley issued his first news release in July, stating he struck a deal with multiple sellers to buy the 55 individual parcels totaling 21 acres and detailing his redevelopment vision.

He lives in a condo unit in Marina Bay 880 that is owned by CA South, the company with Epstein on its advisory board. “I wanted to lease a residence near the Marina District, and the unit was the only one I found that was available for lease,” Riley said.

To date, one of the 55 parcels Riley said he plans to develop has come under his control, with favorable terms provided by the Scientology-connected seller.

On Nov. 1, a limited liability company Riley said he controls bought 708 Osceola Ave., a vacant lot adjacent to the Seminole Boat Ramp, where a cluster of about a dozen aging apartment units had recently been demolished. The company, called RSRCACD 2201 LLC, paid $2 million in cash —$80,000 less than the seller paid for it in 2018. The seller of the lot was a company controlled by a parishioner. Riley intends to build 64 luxury condos on the site, according to a planning application filed with the city in January.

“I cannot speak to the sellers’ motivation to sell the properties for the price that was agreed to,” he said.

In an interview last year, Riley confirmed he also took over construction management for eight unfinished townhomes being built next to the luxury condo towers, Marina Bay 880. Riley said the arrangement was part of the overall deal he reached with Ozsan to secure options to buy the remaining 55 parcels.

Wanting the truth

The projects Riley has planned for North Marina hinge on the Clearwater City Council amending the city’s downtown plan and zoning district, the policies that guide development.

To make way for 15 condo, office, retail and housing projects on the parcels, Riley is requesting increased height limits, changes to parking restrictions and the expansion of overnight accommodations.

In a March 2 memo, Clearwater planning director Gina Clayton said the Old Bay Character District’s development standards were created to preserve the charm of the area while facilitating new construction.

Clayton said the planning department does not support Riley’s proposal outright because the extent of the development would shift the city’s vision for the district. Instead of smaller-scale development and middle housing, it would be “a high-rise district supporting beach tourism,” according to her memo.

Clayton proposed compromises to Riley’s plan for City Manager Jennifer Poirrier and Riley to review.

But Riley has suggested his success would bring millions of dollars of tax revenue to an area in need of a boost.

His projects fall within 840 acres where the city is establishing a special taxing district to benefit the nearby North Greenwood neighborhood. The designation would allow the city to spend property tax revenues collected each year within those boundaries on business, housing and quality of life initiatives for the historically Black area.

Poirrier said that during a meeting in January, Riley’s land use attorney, Brian Aungst Jr., assured her that his client was an independent businessperson working without Scientology influence.

“I did not mislead her about what I know, nor would I,” Aungst told the Times.

Poirrier said she would welcome the opportunity to work with parishioners if they were actually behind the project, but she just wanted the truth.

“The ‘who’ behind it is not important,” Poirrier said. “The ‘what’ is important, and is it right for the community. But deception — that’s not going to be appreciated by the community and by the city, especially when there’s no reason for it.”

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